Interconnected

A few technical words about Upsideclown, and some thoughts about audiences and the web

I also write stories over at Upsideclown, which is both a website and a small writing group. Well I should be careful about the present tense: I wrote there between 2000 and 2003, and I shortly will again. We recently resumed after a 14 year hiatus.

First time round we published twice a week. There are a ton of stories! We had a party for our readers! We self-published a book! Which back then was hard. I had to do layout in Quark and install a special printer driver that would send pages to a printing firm in Tennessee which could do short-run binding. Taking payments online to sell books was, well, I think we ended up mostly doing cash.

This time round it's lower-key: we're publishing once every two weeks. It's the same group of seven, so each of us comes round every three months and some. I'm enjoying seeing how our writing has changed and also how it hasn't.

Upsideclown is old-fashioned I suppose. I started it as an excuse to keep in touch with friends from uni. It’s me, plus Dan, George, Jamie, James, Neil, and Vic. And it's mostly about that plus of sprinkling of some useful pressure to keep my hand in writing fiction. It's not the central purpose but it's always nice to have readers so I do a little light promotion too. (Subscribe to the newsletter!)

It feels transgressive to have a website in 2017. Something about having a domain name and about coding HTML which is against the grain now. It's something big companies do, not small groups. We're supposed to put our content on Facebook or Medium, or keep our publishing to an email newsletter. But a website?

Technical details

Resuming 17 years after starting gives you a glimpse of the long now of the web.

There are pages I made - the first stories - that I haven't touched in almost two decades and they still work. Web-world that's pretty rare. They’ve outlasted most places that encourage you to host their content with them, and even the popularity curve of many programming languages and web frameworks. Database technologies have come and gone.

And then there's my own attention and ability... I no longer program for a living as I did when Upsideclown started. I keep in touch and still make the odd thing, but I've forgotten a ton. So I have a philosophy around choosing what tech to use when I’m building this stuff: will I be able to fix it, half drunk, ten years after I've lost all the tooling.

On the design side I’m pleased that when the design changed, I made sure the old stories kept the old design when the newer ones picked up the new one. Design changes meaning. A story would mean something else if I retroactively put it in a classy frame, or a punk frame, or added highlights.

So it's all about longevity and data. I rewrote everything for the reboot and here’s how it works now:

New Upsideclown stories are stored in Markdown because it's a simple format and, in another decade, when I’ve forgotten everything I know, I’ll be able to tell what I meant just by looking at it. Here's Neil's recent story as published. Here it is in the Markdown "source" format. No databases, it's all files.

Rendering is in PHP. Old school I know, but it's a language which has stood the test of time, and I can go from a standing start (seriously I hadn't coded with it for ten years) to a functional and decent looking site in a leisurely weekend. So if I need to rewrite I know I can. I'm not planning to: unless some burning desire strikes, not until 2034 at the earliest. It’s served with Apache, no app engine. I figure web servers will be around for the duration.

(I have the same approach with my blog: posts are text files and go back to February 2000. The publishing engine I've rewritten a few times.)

The reason the stories aren't kept in HTML is so I can publish out to other formats: there's an RSS version that is picked up by Mailchimp so readers can subscribe to the newsletter. The archive is dynamically generated.

I’m looking at whether to also generate Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, perhaps plug into Apple News too.

People don’t visit or link to websites like they used to.

You gotta fish where the fish are.

But you also want to be able to look back on what you’ve created once you’ve retired. So it’s a balance.

How web publishing has changed

I knew that publishing to the web was out of fashion. What I hadn’t realised was how much the tools had eroded. Or rather, two things: if you want to know how many people have read your stories, and where they came from, then (a) the analytics tools haven’t kept up with how and where people read; and, (b) the analytics tools are made for big companies optimising the flow of audiences down funnels to achieve particular goals. Not for small, independent publishers.

Here’s an example. There’s no simple online tool that lets me add up how many people have read a particular story on Upsideclown via the website, the RSS feed, and the email newsletter. Why not? If I add syndication to Facebook, Google, and Apple, I’m even more at sea.

This isn’t because I want to optimise an audience; this isn’t because I want to sell ads. This is because it’s nice to know that 17 people read the website and 21 people opened the newsletter, and 36 people read the same story on Facebook, and 6 in an RSS reader -- and gosh that’s like the whole top level of a double decker bus, all those people read my story! When companies deal with millions and billions, I think perhaps they forget how the intimate feels. How sometimes it’s not about a thousand retweets but instead about an audience of readers who come back. With whom you have a relationship. Who appreciate you, and you appreciate them. Yes it’s a pleasure to write, and yes I will do it without needing to get 1,000 likes on each and every story, but also let’s not forget that it’s more pleasant with company.

These likes, faves, and claps are cold. No wonder we need so many of them to feel sated. Instead I’d like to look at the depth and duration of meaningful relationships, and to share that with my fellow authors. I know analytics feels like a dirty word in this context, tarred as it is with A/B testing and e-commerce flows, but there’s a joy to be had in being on stage and seeing the faces of your audience — rapt. The erosion of tools for modern online publishing has, bizarrely, made the intimate audience invisible. What can we count so that we’re over the moon when there’s twenty of it? And simultaneously I’d like to make it easy for readers to read wherever they are, whether that’s the web, Facebook, email, or whatever. I can handle that last bit but Google Analytics doesn’t help me with the former. Nor does Medium.

Not without budging on my desire to make pages which I can still read in 2034, anyway. It seems to me that, sometime in the last 17 years, the web forgot the simple pleasure of making, and appreciating what’s made, together.

Two positive signals for the Smart Home

I'm bullish on the Smart Home, and as someone with a professional interest in the Internet of Things who was consumer-IoT-shy this time last year, I’ve been thinking about what changed my mind.

This isn’t a whitepaper, or a even a properly considered analysis: just some notes about where my head’s at and what I’m looking at. I’d appreciate feedback — both supporting points (especially pointers to UK startups who are taking advantage of these trends) and counter-examples. If I’m off-base I’d like to know!

Over the last couple years, the Smart Home has been getting a bad rap. Connected consumer products suffer for a bunch of reasons, including but not inclusively:

  • the sane products aren’t worth the money. Features for this generation of products are generally iterative not transformative: is it useful to remote-check your slower cooker. Sure. But at 5x the price, with the cognitive overhead of apps for everyone in the family, etc? Not so much. Many of the benefits become clear when there's a critical mass of products that can orchestrate and learn from one another
  • the category-busting products aren't acceptable in the market. Consumer behaviour is hard to shift, both for features and also for the business models required for connected hardware. Look at the outrage when a software application goes subscription-only; now think of how a subscription washing machine would go down
  • the barriers to entry are too high when you combine hardware and software. Shifting consumer behaviour is possible... but it takes a lot of experimentation on both ends. Hard to do when hardware is so expensive in small batch production, especially for a startup

All of that said, this year I'm getting excited about consumer Internet of Things again. There are a few trends that make it easier for the Smart Home to get out its slump, such as the ever-increasing acceptability of e-commerce and direct sales, which reclaims the retailer margin.

But two signals in particular.

The smart home platforms have finally given up their fight to own it all

The first signal is smart lighting from Ikea which both fulfils the promise of a low-cost modular system, and also has sane interaction design (that is: it includes physical controls and works when the internet is absent).

More importantly it works with a gamut of Smart Home controls: Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. This tells me that the GAFA stacks (aside: where is Facebook in the Smart Home?) have given up on their unrealistic desire to treat the home as a monolithic own-able platform. The layers are emerging: it will soon be possible for a startup to innovate on a new type of bulb without having to also break into the service layer (and yes, I've met companies with internet-connected bulbs showing a 10x life at comparable cost. Being able to plug-and-play HomeKit, Assistant, and Alexa would be a godsend for them).

At the service layer, it should also become possible to innovate on software and orchestration between devices: I look forward to services that are able to plug in to a smart home from a mix of manufacturers, providing highly specific and differentiated functionality. I think voice has a part to play here: it’s the excuse we’ve been looking for to put our phones down at home.

Interop is good news: more ways in for startups, more places to innovate, and better value for consumers.

Reference designs lower the barrier to innovating on features

The second signal is also a healthy emerging fracture point in the connected hardware stack: Qualcomm's reference designs, including this speaker platform. Reference designs allow for some interesting manufacturer efficiencies. A small company can go and ask for a customised version of this product, benefiting from a supply chain shared with other small companies, and with engineering costs amortised across the same.

The reference design linked above is for a smart speaker. A speaker is no longer just a speaker: it's a speaker with directional microphones, a wi-fi connection to a cloud somewhere, and enough on-board GPU to run a voice assistant, whether that's from Apple or Google. I'm interested to see what the equivalent reference designs are for a smart screen, smart doorlock, smart book, and so on.

If these appear, it will show that the consumer categories for smart products are stabilising. Categories are useful because they allow the rest of the industry to align: retail buyers can set up aisles; marketing educates the consumer; it becomes worthwhile for distributors to do their thing. With a baseline of many products in the same category, it becomes possible to experiment.

Critically reference designs provide an entry point to startups that lets them mimic Apple's business model: hardware differentiated by software. To date this has been inaccessible to startups because hardware development is a huge barrier to overcome before service innovation can begin (not to mention the challenge of distribution). The table stakes are, happily, coming down.

Overall the Internet of Things is going to see an interesting few years. The digital world has seen rapid change: Blockchain, A.I. (in a thousand forms), and next generation interfaces too: voice and augmented reality. The recently stabilised IoT tech stack is pretty solid: digital dividends should be coming into the real world much faster than before.

And then, maybe, finally, we’ll start seeing those category-busting transformative products that we’ve been waiting for.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Weds 5th

dink dink is this thing on

MY DEAREST DROOGS:

I hereby announce that I have been really busy all of 2017 so far and therefore there has been no hardware-ish coffee morning yet. So we're just going to write off the first half of the year. Just like that. Done.

Wednesday 5 July, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

What is a hardware-ish coffee morning? I barely remember, we'll have to make it up. As far as I remember: No intros, no presentations. We take over a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... We've had manufacturers, hardware startups, product-curious agency folks, a baby or two, diletantes and job hunters. Chatty chat chat.

Might be 5 people, might be 25, might be just me and my email. I'm betting on 12 people and you should believe me because I won £11.80 on there being a hung parliament and £15 on Trump getting in so I've got form. Feel especially welcome if you are NOT A DUDE because it's weird if it's tons of dudes.

Anything else? Don't think so. My blog was broken but I fixed it just to post this. See you on the 5th.

(As previously posted to the coffee morning announce list.)

Update:

A great turnout this morning! People who signed the register were Ed and Antton from Flock (pay-as-you-fly insurance for drones), Markus and Alex from product development and production firm RPD, Abigail and David of digital product agency Pixie Labs, and Kaye and Richard of crowdfunding launch assist agency Paved With Gold. It wasn’t all people doubling up. Some came along on their lonesome: brilliant to see Tom E from parenting hardware startup BleepBleeps with a production-run version of his new product (and a prototype of the next one), Tom A fresh from launching his DIY musical instruments project Foxfield, Tamar from Soda which is doing exciting things in retail and launching a concession in Selfridges (!!), plus Dan, Phil, and most importantly Deb who prompted this coffee morning reboot! (And I wonder whether this will prompt a reboot of her email newsletter Metafoundry…) 

Thanks for coming y’all!

Too many conversations to keep up with, but my particular morning included Snapchat Spectacles, how to keep time ring-fenced to contemplate the future, the pros and cons of showrooming, and Jeremy Bentham’s head.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 15th

Okay okay okay, let's have one more hardware-ish coffee morning to wrap up 2016...

Thursday 15 December, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... More info here.

Might be 5 people, might be 25, might be just me and my email. Feel especially welcome if you are NOT A DUDE because it's weird otherwise. All super relaxed and friendly. I'll bring Christmas crackers if I remember and we can all wear hats.

See you on the 15th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 10th

Time for a hardware-ish coffee morning...

Thursday 10 November, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... especially if you're interested in hardware, discovering spectacular new business models that make delivering hardware worth it (sigh), Kickstarter, how to get to manufacture, tinkering, etc, etc.

Sometimes there are four of us, sometimes 14. Once there were 24. All super relaxed and friendly. Come along!

(This coffee morning is on request. Somebody got in touch because they want to bring some early protos. Awesome!)

My secret agenda -- I'm heading up R/GA's newest startup program and we're investing in hardware and Internet of Things companies. I'm on the hunt for great startups. But if you're interested in the program, don't feel you need to come to this... coffee morning is about hanging out with everyone there, not about me. To talk program stuff, we can always Skype. Book a time here.

See you on the 10th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.

Visiting Berlin, and some thoughts on the new IoT program

I'm meeting a ton of interesting startups in the course of outreach for this new Internet of Things accelerator in London. What's working best is turning up at events and talking about it -- because what we're doing isn't typical, I guess, and it needs a bit of an intro. More about that further down this post...

Berlin

I'm off to Berlin this week. Spending a few days because the Internet of Things scene is well developed, and there are a ton of connected hardware startups.

So, here's where I'll be. Please sign up to any and all!

  • Thurs 13 October, 7pm. IoT Berlin meetup at IXDS. Hosted by Martin Spindler. I'll be speaking about the new program... plus sponsoring the drinks which is maybe more of a draw
  • Fri 14 October, 9am. Hardware-ish coffee morning is spreading to Berlin! Same format at London: Coffee, nice people who are doing hardware or curious, chat, super informal. Here's Martin's announcement. Location: Distrikt Coffee. Should be fun hanging out, bring prototypes if you have em.
  • Fri 14 October, 11am-4pm. Opportunity for one-on-one chats at. Betahaus are kindly lending me a space to hang out for the day. Details here. If you'd like feedback on your startup or have questions about the program, drop me a mail with when you'd like to come along. My work email is best: matt.webb@rga.com
  • Sat 15 October, afternoon/evening. I'll be at Betapitch, on the jury and meeting startups. If you're there, say hi!

Program

I travelled to the states a couple of weeks back to meet alumni from R/GA's previous programs. I wanted to get how it works from the horse's mouth, if you know what I mean.

My conclusion is this... it's an investment package (£75k in the case of the new London program) plus 12 weeks to take the 10 startups in the cohort through a traction step-change.

How that works is via carefully selected mentors, and a lightweight curriculum of workshops (say, on performance marketing, depending on what folks need), but MAINLY

  • Making use of R/GA's creatives and strategy folks. There's an assessment at the beginning to identify what one or two things would unlock growth for each company. Maybe it's a finessed business model which we can get to through market sizing; maybe it's a sales deck, or messaging strategy, or refreshed brand. Maybe it's how to best tell the story of some amazing tech but in a newly professional way. So we figure that out, then deliver that thing.
  • Making use of the client networks. Most startups could benefit from partnerships with corporates -- either pilots towards becoming customers, or because a partnership would prove out some of the business model. That's tough in one or two meetings. But R/GA knows its client network really well, and we're getting to know the Innovate UK of smart cities and innovation hubs too (the government, via Innovate UK, is a partner in the program). Over 12 weeks, we can work to make something happen. I like this because it's time-boxed: If it doesn't work out, the startup hasn't wasted their time trying to work with corporates who are typically pretty slow. If it does... well that's some great traction and something great to show off about.

At the end of 12 weeks, there's the usual demo event, and that's usually also firing a starting pistol for an investment round. There's a ton of help with creating the pitch and pitch deck too.

Imagine coming out of the program and having one or two new big names on the traction slide.

Because R/GA has a stake, interests are aligned on long-term success -- I met a startup in NYC who went through the connected devices program there 2 years ago. They're now 30 people, still in the R/GA NYC office, and keen to stay there because of the access to people and new connections.

So I think of this more like a growth-focused program. I'm moving away from using the word "accelerator." The investment terms are friendly to slightly later stage startups (i.e. the hardware is at least at prototype stage) and perhaps that's where the R/GA approach works best.

Stages

I say "stage," that's not what I mean. Some startups are great at hardware but - because attention and people budgets are limited - a bit too lean on the sales, marketing, and partnerships side. Some are brilliant at the business side but need help developing the hardware.

There's a lot of support in the London ecosystem for early hardware development (let me know if you need pointers), but in our ground floor space, we don't have a machine shop. We'll be making room for physical work, but that's not the focus.

The gap I'm wanting to fill is, ok, you've got the hardware, but the service around it: How to sell that. Or you're between Kickstarter and shipping, ok how to get all the ducks in a row so this becomes a serious business.

Growth.

Why hardware?

I talk a lot about connected hardware, even when I'm talking about the Internet of Things. And with IoT, surely I could be talking about platforms that are software-only? Big data analytics, device provisioning, security, etc. There's a lot. And yes, I love that.

But I'm especially interested in hardware. For me, hardware is a signal that all the power of software and the web is being applied to the real world. The hardware doesn't need to be complex or involve a massive breakthrough -- in fact maybe the simpler the better.

Once you apply hardware, you start being able to tackle problems like food waste, retail, soil, gestural interfaces, and power. In short, where we live.

Links

There's more info about the program on the website.

We're having an open house event in London the evening of 27 October. Sign up here.

Applications close 14 November. The program runs February to May 2017.

Happy to chat on Skype about whether there's a good fit. Book some time in my calendar here.

Upcoming chances to meet in Amsterdam, Berlin, etc

So I'm heading up this startup accelerator for IoT and connected hardware. Applications close 14 November. I've just been in the states seeing how previous programs have run. It's all pretty excellent. More on that later.

Right now I'm in outreach mode. I'm meeting as many startups as possible in order to spread the word, and to get a better sense of what the current challenges and opportunities are.

In return, I'm happy to share my take on the business and product, make connections to potential partners and investors where I can, and answer questions about how this particular accelerator works.

All of this is usually quite ad hoc, but there are a few convenient times coming up:

  • Amsterdam. I'll be at Makerversity in Amsterdam on Friday 7 October. We'll be hanging out and having coffee in the afternoon, sign up here. More focused meetings also possible.
  • Berlin. I'm in Berlin for a few days, and will be running office hours at Betahaus on Friday 14 October. Got an Internet of Things or hardware startup? Sign up to meet.
  • Skype. The problem with coffee meetings is you only spend time with startups who are nearby. So on Wednesday afternoons though October, I'll be at my laptop ready to speak. Choose a time here.

Of course I'm always up for meeting over coffee. Drop me a line if you want to set something up: matt at interconnected dot org

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 15th

I am BACK FROM MY SUMMER HOLS, it's raining outside, and I am in the mood to hang out with hardware folks. Let's have a hardware-ish coffee morning?

Thursday 15 September, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

(Timed to follow the Internet of Things conference ThingMonk, so if you're in town for that, do come and hang out for coffee too.)

Usual drill... there's no standing up and doing intros, or anything super formal. We just meet in a convenient cafe and hang out. Folks are often involved in the hardware scene somehow, whether it's making stuff for a hobby, figuring out how to do manufacturing, or in the middle of their Kickstarter campaign. All pretty chilled. Bring prototypes if you got em.

tbh it might just be me and thee. But that's fine, we'll have a cuppa and have a chat.

I have a secret agenda -- I'm heading up R/GA's newest startup accelerator and we're focusing on hardware and Internet of Things startups. Announcement was just the other day. So I'm thinking about what kind of support startups really need, and I'm talking to as many people as possible about that.

See you on the 15th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, subscribe to the mailing list.

Two obvious financial tips

I think the LinkedIn euphemism for it is a "portfolio career," but really what that means is I have a bunch of stuff on the go simultaneously.

So for the past three months I've been working with Google, directing a small team on an invention project. I have my vending machine bookshop; I advise a couple of hardware startups; I've been doing a bit of teaching, etc, etc. I am trying to avoid building another agency.

Working for myself: I love the independence.

Working for myself: Holy shit I hate thinking about cashflow. It destroys any kind of creativity I have, and stops me being casual.

There's a time for hustling, and there's a time for being casual. I find the most interesting opportunities emerge from coffees and talking widely. And interesting opportunities breed interesting opportunities -- as Jack says, you get what you do. So, doubly important to hold off accepting anything until the great stuff appears.

And if I haven't got much money in the bank? That's when I make bad decisions. I mean, this is a question of BATNA: If my Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is that I can't pay my mortgage, then I have to take whatever gig is going, at whatever terms.

I follow two rules to keep myself sane as an independent. This goes for freelancers, contractors, sole traders, and whatever other forms of "self-employed" there are out there.

It occurred to me that other people might be interested, so I thought I'd share them here.

Pay yourself a salary

Business money is not my money. To smooth out peaks and troughs, all gigs pay into a separate account and I pay myself monthly.

My salary is the same amount every month, and paid on the same day of every month.

(Business) taxes also come out of this float.

Build a runway

Once I take into account business expenses and my salary, I can calculate how many months I can survive without work. That's my runway.

If my runway is six months, I can sleep at night. If it's six months minus one day, that's a psychic shitstorm right there.

The reason being that it typically takes me three months to go from asking around to starting a gig (longer for the most unusual ones). Then let's say I get to invoice after a month's work, then it takes a month to get paid, then add a month as a buffer... that's six months right there.

When I started as an independent again, I kept my salary super low until I built up my six months runway.

There's a flip side: If the runway is too long, I stop being hungry. Being hungry is good.

Minimum viable financial management

Two tips. Not rocket science. I imagine most people have something similar. For me, this is what gives me room to be exploratory, and how I sleep easier at night.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, next Thursday

Hey, shall we do a July hardware-ish coffee morning? And, just for kicks, shall we try a different location?

Thursday 21 July, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at Machines Rooms, 45 Vyner St.

Last time we had a fun crowd. Thanks for coming Ross, Paul, Anders, Pauline, Josh, Avril, Phoenix, John, Lloyd, Tom, and Nat.

It was from Nat that I learnt about Machines Room -- it's a makerspace right in the middle of London's densest area for hardware startups. Tech Will Save Us is on the same road, for example.

There's equipment there, and coffee, and events. So next week is going to be a busy one of us doing stuff together! On Tuesday night, I'm taking part in an event about hardware startups and business models. Sign up here. On Wednesday, my bookshop vending machine Machine Supply will be moving there for its latest residency. And on Thursday morning, this hardware-ish coffee morning!

Usual drill... there's no standing up and doing intros, or anything super formal. The coffee morning is simply a friendly space to hang out, chat, get caffeinated, and compare notes on everything hardware related, whether that's making stuff as a hobby, figuring out how to do manufacturing, swapping interesting new Kickstarters, or just spending time with like-minded people.

Hope to see you at Machines Room next Thursday!